Educating for Employment

Policy makers and company leaders are starting to be serious about making policies to help close the EU gap between demand and supply of skills.

Four million job vacancies and 20 million unemployed. The real pain is felt in Spain, Greece and elsewhere throughout the EU, but these numbers are also getting to policy makers in Brussels.  April 26-27 I attended the 2012 European Business Summit in Brussels, which is an annual event for a few hundred leaders of private and public organizations mixed with prime ministers and EU officials. This year the theme was Skills and the purpose was to discuss “the necessity to find solutions for an aging workforce, the mismatch between the current educational system and youth unemployment and ways to improve education.” 

The Summit program included presentations by business leaders, presidents of industry associations, EU commissioners,  prime ministers and the presidents of the European Council and European Commission. Most of them talked about the problem, we do not generate the right skills for long-term economic growth, and some of them about possible solutions. Almost all speakers stressed two things: the importance of encouraging young people to study science, technology and engineering, and the need to help students become more “employable”. The former they see as the long-term guarantee of innovation in Europe and the latter is a necessity since we can’t afford the current system where university graduates don’t find jobs. The message I heard was that universities should  listen more carefully to the needs of (current) the private and public sector.

I’ve heard it before. When I was president of a Danish university 2009-2011 the debate was the same. In view of the mounting deficit and national debt the governments kept funding the universities generously, but they began to demand that university professors climbed down from their ivory towers to research to resolve real and important societal problems and educate to enhance employability. They also pushed for more science, technology and engineering studies. I also heard it in Singapore two weeks ago and I guess I’ll continue to hear it in Sweden too. I conclude that this message about education for job creation will be stronger over the next few years.

The primary reason I attended the Summit was to contribute to a special roundtable on Management Skills for Growth hosted by EFMD, to which I was invited.  Kicked-off by one of the editors of The Economist and the chairman of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology the roundtable discussion served to refine a Call for Action from EFMD about management skills and practice as a way to accelerate value creation in Europe. This two-page Call for Action will be channeled to EU policy makers and hopefully have some impact. The group included senior leaders of companies as diverse as Telefonica and Facebook, people from management education organizations of different kinds and as representatives from the Education and Culture and Enterprise and Industry DGs of the European Commission.

We discussed several ideas and potential practices for how to make even better connections between industry and academia. For example, the practice of  Innovation Factories in Germany, which serve to bring scholars of technology, business and company people together to solve concrete problems that maters to society. Another approach we talked about was to consider PhD studies a way to become entrepreneur, not only an academic professor. I talked about the need to use the public sector to drive innovation, which seem to find fertile grounds in this group. Others talked about the need to break down “elitism” in higher education since the famous companies of today were started by university drop outs. Others ventilated their frustrations about business schools being too detached from real world problems and sometimes even causing them. Yet, others talked about the need to create fertile context for entrepreneurship within existing companies and among people who are approaching and even passing formal retirement age – “senior entrepreneurship”.

Reflections

First, the EU has proven itself as capable of stimulating evolution, but seems less great at navigating in revolutions. But, as some of the people argued, we’re in revolutionary times and right now we need policies for revolutions more than polices for evolutions. I didn’t see much discussion of that.

Second, I was also left with the impression that most decision makers don’t really differentiate between research and innovation. As the Swedish Paradox illustrates, there is no clear positive relationship between research funding and commercialized innovation. In fact, that is one of the great myths of our time, and a convenient one for scholars who want to stay in the ivory tower.

Third, John Stewart Mill said that you can’t create happiness; you can only create the conditions from which happiness may emerge (as a product of something else). Otherwise you may end up with nothing. The policy makers I listened to seem to have forgotten this wisdom.  It is unlikely that EU or a national government really can create polices that will directly create jobs and the desired social inclusion. It is probably better to think of policies that create something else, which has the outcome of also creating jobs and social inclusion. That “something else” should be huge private and public investments in development of new products, services, processes and systems in the intersection between atoms, bits, neurons and genome, which can be applied to solve problems as diverse as effective elderly care and efficient green energy.

To pull this off we need both young and more experienced people with skills, wills and passion for technology, design and business – working together. In the world of the 27 nation EU and the rest of the world we also need people who, just like EU Commission President Barosso said he is advising his own children, speak many languages and mix natural sciences with the deep insights gained from the humanities.

For that statement I simply had to shake his hand!

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